Buffalo Sabres: What Options Do They Have in Net for the Future?

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The Buffalo Sabres have had many struggles this season, that much is known. 

But as much as they have struggled in most aspects, the Sabres have been buoyed at times by some pretty solid goaltending. 

While the numbers have not been spectacular, it’s hard to say anything too negative about the platoon of Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth this season. Enroth won 13 games in 37 appearances, including a 9-2-0 stretch from Nov. 18 to Dec. 15. Neuvirth has amassed a contextually impressive .911 save percentage and has looked great at times as well.

But the band was broken up when Sabres general manager Tim Murray traded Enroth to the Dallas Stars last week, effectively making Neuvirth the de facto starter for the rest of the season.

The Enroth deal did bring Anders Lindback over from the Stars, but it seems that move was made more to make room for Enroth on the Dallas roster than as an actual acquisition for the Sabres.

So where does this leave the Sabres in net moving forward?

The easy answer is Neuvirth, who looked especially impressive in a 2-1 shootout loss to the New Jersey Devils Tuesday night in which he stopped all 29 shots at even strength in the effort.

But it’s not that simple.

First, Neuvirth is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and there has been no public acknowledgement of any contract talks by Murray or Neuvirth‘s camp. That’s not to say nothing has happened, but there hasn’t been anything from either side that makes one think Neuvirth will definitely be back next season. 

And what may be the most salient point in discussing Neuvirth is his inconsistency. In his first full season with the Washington Capitals in 2010-11, Neuvirth posted a solid 2.45 goals against average and an equally strong .914 save percentage. The next season his GAA ballooned to 2.82 and his save percentage plunged to .903. 

After that regression, Neuvirth never reclaimed the starting job, ceding it to Braden Holtby and opening the door for the trade to the Sabres last trade deadline.

Now, Neuvirth‘s GAA is an awful 3.16 this season, but to put most of the blame on him for that, and not on the 34.7 shots allowed per game by the Sabres is misguided.

Yes, he has only won three games this season, but some nights it seems like the Sabres were lucky to have won more than three games all year. This is a bad team, and bad teams typically don’t make their goalies look good.

But even in a solid season, Neuvirth has had his inconsistencies, including allowing six goals on 29 shots against the Blues and four goals on nine shots against the Rangers.

But if Neuvirth is not “the guy,” who is?

Lindback seems to be a quick fix more than anything. He has struggled mightily at the NHL level the past few years, and barring a miraculous turnaround, it seems logical that he will hit the market July 1 as a free agent.

The Sabres have three notable goalie prospects in Rochester of the AHL, but none have really separated themselves from the others for various reasons.

The biggest name is likely Matt Hackett, who recently returned from a gruesome injury suffered against the Boston Bruins at the end of last season. Hackett has played one game for the Sabres this season in Vancouver and was frankly hung out to dry on that occasion, seeing 37 shots and giving up four goals.

Hackett struggled when he first returned, but seems to have settled in Rochester. He has a long way to go, but he’s shown the flashes to make one think he could be an option moving forward, at least in a platoon.

Another name that may be recognizable down in Rochester is Andrey Makarov, another young netminder that dressed (but never played) for the Sabres last season. After a fast start to his AHL career, Makarov has struggled this season, posting a GAA of 3.01 with a save percentage of .901. 

The last player in the pipeline in Rochester is Nathan Lieuwen. Lieuwen struggled early this season before being sidelined with a concussion that has kept him out of action the past few months. Lieuwen‘s season, and potentially his career, could be over. 

So even working under the assumption Neuvirth is going to be back, which may be a stretch, there still could be an opening at the second goaltender position next year. The most likely possibility is Hackett at this point, but unless he gets seven more games at the NHL level, he too will become an unrestricted free agent. 

That opens up the possibility of testing the free-agent market to find their guy, bringing names like Antti Niemi and Devan Dubnyk into play, but there probably isn’t going to be a full-fledged starting goalie available on the open market. 

That notion brings one to the trade market, an area Murray has not shied away from lately. But instead of targeting an established veteran, Murray may look to acquire a young player with starting potential who is blocked by a current standout. 

Boston’s Malcolm Subban has been the most popular name in that group, but other names to keep an eye on include Magnus Hellberg in Nashville, Oscar Dansk in Columbus and Zachary Fucale in Montreal.

Yet another route Murray and the Sabres could go is to sign a college free agent. Almost every year there are a few NCAA players that went undrafted that have proven themselves to be NHL-caliber players. The Sabres recently signed Chad Ruhwedel as a college free agent. 

This year, the biggest prize may be Boston University goalie Matt O’Connor. O’Connor has a sterling 2.07 GAA and an equally impressive .931 save percentage, all while racking up 16 wins this season for the Hockey East-leading Terriers. Another certain BU player may have gotten a bit more attention from Sabres fans this season, but O’Connor should be a close second. 

Most NCAA free agents typically want one thing when they sign, and that’s guaranteed playing time. O’Connor would get that in Buffalo, provided his level of play translates well.

If anything it’s a low-risk flier on a 6’5″ netminder, who has played fantastically this season. It’s not too much of a stretch to think that without Jack Eichel standing in front of him, O’Connor would be a Hobey Baker finalist. 

With all of these options, but no clear solution, one thing is for certain: Murray has a lot of decisions to make with regard to the goaltender position.

Whether it’s an internal solution or an external one, it’s one of the biggest questions Murray needs to answer to ensure that this rebuild maintains it’s upward swing. The easiest option is to just let Neuvirth show what he can do, but the prospect of signing O’Connor could also be intriguing. 

The positive is there are solutions available to Murray, it’s just a matter of which one he decides to go with for next season.

 

Follow me on Twitter for NHL and Sabres news all season: @SwordPlay18.

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